Bestselling Author Nir Eyal On How To Handle Challenges, Distractions, & Stress

Nir Eyal speaks at FirstMark’s Design Driven NYC (Full talk here)

Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. The M.I.T. Technology Review dubbed Nir, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.” He also founded two tech companies since 2003 and has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. He is the author of the bestselling book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

Nir has been a frequent guest speaker at FirstMark’s Design Driven NYC, a monthly event, open to the public, that is the largest monthly creative community of its kind where Design, UX, and Product leaders gather to share new ideas.

We recently caught up with Nir to learn more about his approach to challenges, stress, and his upcoming book about digital distractions.

Is there a particular framework that you use when faced with a challenging situation?

Yes, there’s one that I’ve repeated several times in my life in challenging moments and it has to do with managing your state of mind.

After business school, I started another tech company–this one was in the gaming & advertising space. We were out raising capital and we somehow got a meeting with Kleiner Perkins. I remember we had a meeting with John Doerr and Bing Gordon, these legends of Silicon Valley. I had pitched other VCs, but at this point I remember feeling so nervous–these guys are really important people.

“Look, it’s all prom.”

Right before our meeting with John and Bing, I talked to a friend of mine and he had this great metaphor that’s stuck with me to this day. He said, “Look, it’s all prom. When you’re in high school, prom is such a big deal and everybody is all stressed out about it. Who are you going to ask? What are you going to wear? Etc. It’s such a big deal yet looking back, it’s ridiculous, none of it matters. At the end of the day, life is prom, these big moments don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things.”

So today, every time I’m in a situation that seems like a catastrophe or something that requires me to stress out, I repeat that little mantra to myself to know that nothing is as bad or as good as it seems, in the moment.

Was there a trying time in your childhood that taught you a lesson that you still apply today?

Up until high school, I was a really chubby kid. My parents took me to fat camp and the whole nine yards. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office one day and he showed me this chart and said: “Okay Nir, here’s normal, here’s obese, and here’s you.”

That did a lot for me. Food, at that time of my life, had this very powerful effect over me and it seemed to control my behaviors in ways that I didn’t always like. Today, I think that translates into what I study in terms of technology use in our society. How do we make sure that the behaviors that we design into our products are behaviors that not only help the users’ lives, but also, don’t control them?

“The fact that I could get control over what I ate, even though it seemed like something that controlled me, was really powerful.”

Food is such an integral part of our life, it’s something we can’t escape unlike other addictions; you can quit smoking, you can sober up, but you have to eat. The fact that I could get control over what I ate, even though it seemed like something that controlled me, was really powerful. I think overcoming that adversity was the first thing from my childhood that still sticks with me today.

How do you handle stress?

The most important thing to realize is that stress is not a bad thing–it’s how we respond to it that can be detrimental.

There’s a lot of research that shows how stress has gotten a bad name. People think: “If I’m feeling stressed, that must be bad for me–that’s bad for my body and it’s making things worse.”

“The most important thing to realize is that stress is not a bad thing–it’s how we respond to it that can be detrimental.”

Actually, it turns out that your mindset around stress is very important. If you think; “Oh my gosh, I’m stressed and I need to not be stressed,” that actually creates a rumination cycle which makes things even worse. On the flip side, there are people who have a mindset around stress in which they tell themselves: “This is just my body preparing for peak performance.” Those are the people who have a healthy relationship with stress and it actually makes them better.

For example, I do a lot of public speaking, literally hundreds of speaking engagements every year, and I used to get nervous on stage. I’d tell myself: “I’ve got to calm down, I’ve got to calm down.” But now, I don’t tell myself that dialogue anymore. Now, the dialogue is actually: “What I’m feeling is my body getting ready to perform at its highest level.”

That shift in mindset is a huge advantage because it means you’re not fighting with yourself anymore. You’re using the momentum of what your body is giving you. Telling yourself: “My heart is beating faster because my brain needs more oxygen and I’m breathing quicker to get in more of that oxygen in.” When you realize that what you’re feeling physiologically can become an asset as opposed to something that can harm you, that’s really powerful.

Your upcoming book is all about focus and distraction — can you tell us a bit more about it?

The book is called Indistractable: How to Master the Skill of the Century and in it I call distraction the skill of the century. What we’re seeing nowadays is that the jobs of the future are the ones that require the kind of human ingenuity and creativity that only come from focus. The jobs that are hard to do–that make a big difference and subsequently earn the big bucks–are the ones that require you to be fully present.

If you’re a VC and you can’t help but constantly get distracted by your phone when you should be giving an entrepreneur your full attention, that shows and people feel that.

If you’re coder and you can’t do one thing at a time and just work on this complicated problem and keep it in your head, that shows. For a lot of engineers, tuning out other people to get them to stop bothering you is a tactic you need to have.

If you’re an entrepreneur and you can’t keep things under control at home because you’re not giving proper attention to the people you love and your personal life is crumbling, well then, that’s going to take a toll on your company, as well.

“The jobs of the future are the ones that require the kind of human ingenuity and creativity that only come from focus.”

So, the real question of the book is very simple: how do I get myself to do the things I say I’m going to do?

Whether that’s going to the gym, whether that’s eating right, whether that’s being with family and friends, whether that’s working on a big project that I don’t feel like working on right now that’s hard to do. How do I get myself to do the things that I know I want to do and I say I’m going to do?

That’s really the question I answer in the book and it turns out that we can systematically dissect this question and find lots of great solutions.

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